Monday, February 10, 2014

Day 274 - A Streetcar Named Desire

I have never watched A Street Car Named Desire. As a part of my goal to see one classic movie I have never seen each month during the course of my “I have never...” year, watching A Street Car Named Desire seemed an obvious choice. Although my limited knowledge of the film created no real desire to watch it prior to this year, my “I have never...” research on some of the greatest movies in history revealed A Street Car Named Desire was bound to a series of distinct honors in American cinematic history. Particularly, the film was consistently recognized as groundbreaking in its willingness to take on themes of domestic violence and mental illness, and its rare feat of garnering academy award wins in three out of the four acting categories set it aside in the annals of American cinema. As a result, I decided I would sit through the film for the first time as a part of my “I have never...” year. At minimum, I figured the experience would offer some deeper insight into the evolution of modern cinema, but I never expected it would leave me heavy and morose by the time the film reached its conclusion.

Although I had a basic idea of the premise behind A Street Car Named Desire heading into the movie, the film’s rapid progression from a woman seeking a new life with the help of her sister in New Orleans to a tale of instability, despair, and forlorn caught me by surprise. As I watched Blanche DuBois fall into the trappings of the tormented life led by her sister, Stella, I felt myself caught between a state of disconnection and compassion. Under the thumb of Stella’s significant other, Stanley, I watched as the man progressively detracted any element of control in Stella and Blanche’s lives. Through fear and violence, Stanley dictated and left Stella feeling helplessly bound to his way of life. In a state of dystopia the couple existed beyond the scope of reason, and Blanche was simply left to tolerate the madness and let it slowly eat away at her well-being.

A hopeful new start

Very early in the film, I was at a loss as to why Stella and Blanche persisted in the environment, but their lack of any alternative made me realize plotting an escape was likely too heavy a lift in such desperate conditions. As a result, I could only look on as Stanley’s control and anger swelled while Blanche attempted to fight her demons, escape her old life, and rescue her now-pregnant sister. Behind a thin veil of gentry, her struggles and alcoholism took their toll as she fought for herself and Stella, until she was left incapable of finding happiness and managing her day-to-day life.


A hollow love

As the film progressed it became apparent the environment and circumstances surrounding Blanche were eroding her mental state and pushing her toward a sudden brink. Behind the illusion of a relationship with one of Stanley’s friends, Mitch, she simply was at battle with the reality around her and the forces within. As a viewer, I was in dismay at her tortured existence, hopeful she would find a way to her happy ending, but almost certain she would not. This perspective was only reinforced when Stanley took action to uproot Blanche’s relationship with Mitch and sent her life into an accelerated spiral. Weary and detached, Blanche barely held on until a final confrontation with Stanley on the day of her nephew’s birth, which resulted in an intoxicated Stanley forcing himself upon Blanche in her sister’s absence, shattering any semblance of stability left in Blanche’s mind.

Slipping away

The final confrontation...

...and a woman, lost.

In the final minutes of the film I held my hand to my face as scenes of a delusional Blanche flashed across the screen. Broken, she lived in a false existence, relying on escapism to distance herself from the reality of living under the same roof as the man that had violated her and continued to punish her dejected sister. Eventually seeking to remove the last ties to the woman he had assaulted, Stanley used this slip in Blanche’s mental state to have her removed forcibly from the home and thrown into an institution. In my mind, it was the final insult Stanley could offer to Blanche, which solidified isolated, sad feeling I had felt building throughout the film. Although the final scene of Stella promising her newborn son she would cut Stanley out of their lives and climbing the stairs to the safety of her neighbor’s apartment offered some hope, to me that outcome was anything but certain.

Solemn hope

With the credits rolling, I sat next to Rachael silent for several minutes before she broke the silence. “That was something else, huh?” Rachael said quietly. At first, I simply nodded my head in agreement, still formulating my thoughts on the movie. It wasn’t until the television screen went black that I finally spoke. “You know, it’s sad and uncomfortable,” I said staring at the blank screen, “but it was meant to be that way. This was one of the first films to take on the concepts of domestic violence and mental illness in an authentic way. It’s heartbreaking, but it cast a light over dark places.” The words escaped my lips effortlessly, and they made me realize the real power of A Street Car Named Desire. As a film that didn’t gloss over controversial topics, it encapsulated many of the ills of society and their effects on people. It made terrible concepts real, forcing the audience to talk about them openly. In the early 1950s that was revolutionary and it helped establish the potential of cinema going forward. While the story wasn’t a happy one, there are a lot of lessons to be learned and a lot of perspective to be gained from this film. Those takeaways make me glad I finally took time to watch A Street Car Named Desire.

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